TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 16, 2021
When Mead and Baldwin rapped: It's never been easy to conduct serious discussions of the construct we refer to as "race."
Centuries of brutal inhuman history underlie the concept. For reasons which are obvious. deep feelings underlie, and may undermine, attempts at such discussion.
It's never been easy to discuss such deeply fraught topics. Consider what happened when James Baldwin and Margaret Mead conducted their once-famous 1970 colloquy—a two-day discussion which came to be known as "A Rap on Race."
In 1971, a transcript of the discussion was published and sold in book form under that catchy title. Chunks of the discussion were also issued as a record album.
The book appeared in August 1971; it has long been out of print. In the following passage, the leading authority on this topic describes the way the book has been viewed down through the many long years:
The book was dismissed as "the same old bilge you've heard from the fellow on the next stool to you in the saloon " by a reviewer at The New York Times when it was first published. More recently, writer Maria Popova called the book "a remarkable and prescient piece of the cultural record" and "a bittersweet testament to one of the recurring themes in their dialogue—our tendency to sideline the past as impertinent to the present, only to rediscover how central it is in understanding the driving forces of our world and harnessing them toward a better future."
Say what? The book was dismissed as "the same old bilge" in the New York Times?
As a matter of fact, it was! The review appeared in June 1971. It was written by Richard Elman, a novelist and reviewer who would almost surely have been described as a man of the left.
In his review of A Rap on Race, Elman was more complimentary to Baldwin than to Mead. But yes, he called their discussion "bilge." Here's how the review began:
ELMAN (6/27/71): No fuss. No bother. Eliminate dirty smudges on the fingertips, broken nails, and messy erasure marks. You don't need to revise, rethink, or rewrite. You don't even need to write. Just think of it, folks: No more bloodshot eyes, or coffee bowels, or angry friends you've stood up to work just a little longer, harder, more. Sealed inside your own angry mortal human vacuum, to be just as fatuous as Margaret Mead and James Baldwin about the crisis of our time—particularly race—all you have to do is talk and not listen, always avoid expressing your feelings openly, refer constantly to other times and other cultures with historical and/or pseudo-historical truths, interrupt whenever possible, call yourself a prophet or a poet, insist that you are being emotionally sincere and/or objectively rational, and record it all on tape, to be transcribed later as a book.
You may perorate endlessly: "Well, I wonder. Perhaps its a very bizarre wonder, but I can't get myself into the head of, let us say—we're speaking in such horrible generalities, speaking of white and black people." And the reader will be sure to note that your Tristram Shandyesque syntax denotes sincerity...
Announce that "love is the only wisdom." Assert such "in the name of your ancestors." Denounce any and all assertions of "racial guilt." Speak out fearlessly against the plight of Chicanos, Filipinos, Sephardic Jews of Israel. Presto! You're off the hook. You've got a book. You haven't had to say anything at all, and it will probably sell fairly well. This is called instantaneous wisdom, although some may call it "A Rap on Race."
Basically, it will be the same old bilge you've heard from the fellow on the next stool to you in the saloon...
Elman didn't like the book. As a matter of fact, he didn't seem to like the book at all.
He seemed to find the long conversation some form of self-indulgent. Here's more of what he wrote:
ELMAN: Caution: You must either be a world-famous white liberal anthropologist, or a brilliant black writer, or else there isn't much of an audience for this sort of thing except among your friends, or in taverns and bars where people generally call it baloney. But wisdom and baloney are as blither is to blather; here and there ideas are speckled like pieces of fat in a slab of Hebrew National, though most of it is pretty bland, chewy stuff...
With their tape recorder, Margaret Mead and James Baldwin got together one steamy night last August. They had a mutual friend. So first they ate dinner and then they went blah blah blah in front of the recorder late into that night and then again the next day—about New Guinea, South Africa, Women's Lib, the South, slavery, Christianity, their early childhood upbringings, Israel, the Arabs, the bomb, Paris, Istanbul, the English language, Huey Newton, John Wayne, the black bourgeoisie, Baldwin's 2-year-old grand nephew and Professor Mead's daughter.
"We've got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible," he said to her, poignantly enough, at one point, "because we are still each other's only hope." But, eventually, they got so angry and muddled that he was being accused of mouthing anti-Semitic nonsense and, as a final quid pro quo, he lumped her among his potential enemies and victimizers. Rather smugly, the anthropologist has said she could not possibly be a racist because of her impeccable upbringing and because she had once or twice coddled babies in Africa, Samoa, West Irian. Baldwin countered by asking how could he be an anti-Semite since one of his best friends was Jewish.
Was any of that a fair account of what these famous people said? We can't answer your question, but Elman was a figure of the left. He closed his review as shown:
ELMAN: [T]his sort of thing, if obviously impassioned, well-intentioned, and not always wrong-headed, is still not much more than a cut above the sort of thing that most blacks and whites are saying to each other now that we're all supposedly getting together. It may be a little bit more uptight, as Baldwin had the humanity to admit at one point when he said: "Let me tell you something else. I think I do realize some things about other people. Maybe what I realize is more bitter than I would like it to be. I realize that. I was thinking about it all day long, and when this rather terrifying show is over, I'll come and have a drink with you without any microphones or anything, because I want us to be friends and you know I mean that."
Better luck next time, Professor Mead and Mr. Baldwin. For the rest of us, I think we better start talking to each other and stop listening to wise men and women among us except when they deign to write down what they have to say in novels and plays and poems and essays and yes, then revise, if necessary.
In modern parlance, Elman seemed to think that Baldwin and Mead had been "bloviating" in a self-indulgent way during their lengthy "rap on race." They hadn't taken the time or the trouble to restrict and refine their endless array of thoughts about this most important general subject.
Elman seemed to be angry about this. How insightful was his critique? We have no idea.
Many years later, Maria Popova expressed a quite different view. At her web site, she offered four lengthy essays about what Baldwin and Mead had said.
Today, Popova's site is called The Marginalian. Her essays appeared in 2015. If you want to read the essays, you can start where Popova starts. Headline included, you can start right here:
POPOVA (3/19/15): A Rap on Race: Margaret Mead and James Baldwin’s Rare Conversation on Forgiveness and the Difference Between Guilt and Responsibility
On the evening of August 25, 1970, Margaret Mead (1901–1978) and James Baldwin (1924–1987) sat together on a stage in New York City for a remarkable public conversation about such enduring concerns as identity, power and privilege, race and gender, beauty, religion, justice, and the relationship between the intellect and the imagination. By that point, Baldwin, forty-six and living in Paris, was arguably the world’s most famous living poet, and an enormously influential voice in the civil rights dialogue; Mead, who was about to turn seventy, had become the world’s first celebrity academic—a visionary anthropologist with groundbreaking field experience under her belt, who lectured at some of the best cultural institutions and had a popular advice column in Redbook magazine.
They talked for seven and a half hours of brilliance and bravery over the course of the weekend, bringing to the dialogue the perfect balance of similarity and difference to make it immensely simulating and deeply respectful. On the one hand, as a white woman and black man in the first half of the twentieth century, they had come of age through experiences worlds apart. On the other, they had worlds in common as intellectual titans, avid antidotes to the era’s cultural stereotypes, queer people half a century before marriage equality, and unflinching celebrators of the human spirit.
Besides being a remarkable and prescient piece of the cultural record, their conversation, the transcript of which was eventually published as A Rap on Race, is also a bittersweet testament to one of the recurring themes in their dialogue—our tendency to sideline the past as impertinent to the present, only to rediscover how central it is in understanding the driving forces of our world and harnessing them toward a better future. This forgotten treasure, which I dusted off shortly after Ferguson and the Eric Garner tragedy, instantly stopped my breath with its extraordinary timeliness—the ideas with which these two remarkable minds tussled in 1970 had emerged, unsolved and unresolved, to haunt and taunt us four decades later with urgency that can no longer be evaded or denied.
Where Elman heard bilge, Popova heard brilliance. As she correctly noted, the conversation had been conducted by two of the most highly regarded intellectuals in the western world.
Was it bilge or was it brilliance? It can hardly matter now.
Reading through Popova's detailed essays about the conversation, we've been struck by how "airy-fairy"—by how unhelpfully high-minded and abstruse—the conversation seems to have been.
For better or worse, Popova never seems to record anyone making any concrete proposal or suggestion. The conversation occurs on an extremely high intellectual plane, with the occasional odd remark thrown in.
(Note Mead's remembered admonition to her four-year-old daughter, an admonition she had offered back in the 1940s. Popova regards this as an example of Mead's wisdom. In recent years, such remarks have gotten at least one major (beloved) American author semi-removed from the canon:
MEAD: I was walking across the Wellesley campus with my four-year-old, who was climbing pine trees instead of keeping up with me.
I said, “You come down out of that pine tree. You don’t have to eat pine needles like an Indian.” So she came down and she asked, “Why do the Indians have to eat pine needles?” I said, “To get their Vitamin C, because they don’t have any oranges.” She asked, “Why don’t they have any oranges?” Then I made a perfectly clear technical error; I said, “Because the white man took their land away from them.” She looked at me and she said, “Am I white?” I said, “Yes, you are white.” “But I didn’t took their land away from them, and I don’t like it to be tooken!” she shouted.
Now if I had said, “The early settlers took their land away,” she would have said, “Am I an early settler?” But I had made a blanket racial category: the white man. It was a noble sentiment, but it was still racial sentiment.
Popova presents that anecdote in her first essay. It strikes us as a strange anecdote, in at least several ways.
By the way, was Mead's daughter actually "white," as she was told that day? It all depends on what the meaning of "being white" is! Or at least, so we'd still say today!)
Baldwin and Mead conducted a very long discussion; it was published as "a rap." Elman thought he was hearing bilge. Popova thought she heard brilliance.
Inevitably, various people will have various reactions and various feelings concerning such deeply fraught topics. And at that point, our profoundly flawed human impulses start to enter the chase.
This brings us up to the present day, to our own badly failed conversations on race. At this point, a bit of disclosure:
As the past few years have gone by, we've been more and more repelled by the moral and intellectual squalor our own extremely self-impressed blue tribe brings to these failed discussions.
"I'm so hard to handle, I'm selfish and I'm sad," a brilliant song-writer once brilliantly wrote. She even called the album Blue!
We've long been impressed by the brilliance of her highly unusual candor. Human tribes are rarely inclined to behave in any such way.
Tomorrow: Ignorant armies, by night